During the year 2002, I had the pleasure of managing a fine salesman named Jeff LaFleur. Jeff lived in Croton, N.Y., in Westchester County and that was the area that he serviced. I would typically drive up to work with Jeff once per month and it usually involved an overnight stay in Peekskill, not far from his home. Jeff was a good family man and fun guy to work with but he suffered from a glaring misconception. He, like other New Yorkers I had met, felt that the Big Apple was tops in everything, especially when it came to Italian restaurants. Now I would put my favorite South Philly restaurants up against restaurants anywhere and Jeff knew it. So, as luck would have it, on a Saturday in August of that year, circumstances allowed that Jeff would have an opportunity to prove his favorite spot was superior to any place I could go to in my hometown.
A friend of mine had given me two tickets to see the Phillies play the Mets at Shea Stadium. Naturally, I decided to take my daughter, Rosanne, who was and still is a Phillies loyalist of the utmost degree. When I informed Jeff of this, he immediately suggested that we meet him and his 12-year-old daughter Amy and have lunch at his favorite spot in the Bronx. The timing would work out well and we would be finished eating in plenty of time to get to the game in the Flushing Meadows section of Queens. The plan was for us to meet at the Red Oak Diner in Fort Lee, N.J., where I would park my car and we would all drive together in Jeff’s car to the restaurant.
During the drive to the restaurant, that I will call Fanucci’s (not its real name), Jeff explained that it was located on Arthur Avenue deep in the heart of the “Little Italy” section of the Bronx that was famous for a bunch of reasons. Belmont Avenue was a nearby street that a local boy, Dion DiMucci , chose to incorporate in the name of his great singing group, Dion and the Belmonts. Actor and director Chazz Palminteri wrote and starred in the hit movie and play, “A Bronx Tale,” that was set in his old neighborhood. And last but not least, the local restaurants were said to have some interesting clientele. Some of them even made it onto the 6 o’clock news while occasionally entering the courthouse from their shiny black Cadillacs.
By the time we arrived at Fanucci’s, Rosie and I were ready to go. We entered the double door into a very small dining room, with only about eight small tables. To our left was a small bar, with no booze displayed. Seated at the bar were two neatly dressed men who looked up at us briefly and then went back to their quiet conversation. The only other patrons were a couple, finishing their lunch, who were obviously not from the neighborhood. The attractive blond woman, in her 40s, was impeccably dressed, diamonds and all, and the man looked like he just walked out of the pages of GQ. I figured them for tourists who wanted to sample the local flavor. As we stepped farther into the place, a very large man approached and said, “Please sit here.” We did … and quickly. As soon as we sat down I noticed there were no menus.
“OK, today we got chicken parmesan, scungilli with pasta, sausage and peppers, veal Sorrentino and gnocchi with broccoli rabe,” the very large man said. “Relax, I’ll be back.”
He then walked over to the couple and said simply, “Seventy-five dollars!” The lady said, “Oh, but we didn’t get a check!” The waiter repeated with a tad more emphasis, “Seventy-five dollars.” Her companion rammed his elbow into the inquisitive lady’s left arm with the Gucci handbag with the hope of having her cease further comment.
She said nothing else, the guy pulled out a C note and gave it to the waiter. Then they left. It seems had the lady been a bit more observant she would have noticed that the only paper in the place was the New York Post that the two guys at the no-drink bar shared. No menus, no credit cards. Cash only, thank you.
I decided I wouldn’t be asking for a receipt.
Jeff was right. Our lunch was fabulous. After a great antipasto made up of sharp provolone, soppressata, fresh mozzarella, pepperoni, olives, roasted peppers and various greens, topped off with olive oil and great crusty bread, we got down to the real eating. We had all five items family style. We had a ball, and our waiter seemed to really like us. He kept the bread basket full the whole meal and refreshed the drinks throughout. He was even more genteel when he announced the amount of the tab.
After we enjoyed our Italian rum cake and cannoli dessert, I thought it was wise to leave a healthy tip for a couple of reasons. First of all, the food and the service were superior. More importantly, Fanucci’s food may be equal to my favorite place in South Philly but a South Philly kid knows the right way to act when his road trip takes him through Fanucci’s on Arthur Avenue.